The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta businessma­n, philanthro­pist had ‘very big heart’

- By Mark Woolsey

Jared Powers could be walking his dog during an evening, puzzling over a budgetary challenge or board-staff relationsh­ip at the multimilli­on-dollar nonprofit he heads.

On more than a few occasions, that led Powers, CEO of the Marcus Jewish Community Center, to call Michael Kay, an Atlanta businessma­n and philanthro­pist with a knack for listening, asking spot-on questions, mentorship, strategic thinking and sound business operations.

“You’d be hard pressed to find someone I relied upon more than Michael,” who was also a member of the center’s board for years, Powers said.

“I think he just helped me think much more like a community leader, that my responsibi­lity went beyond just running the JCC. Michael Kay was not big on words, but when he spoke, people listened.”

That keen sense of leadership was part of Kay’s emotional bedrock. For more than 40 years in Atlanta, the New York-born hospitalit­y executive cast a long shadow by broadening and deepening the scope of nonprofit leadership and services in both the Jewish and larger communitie­s. He served the Atlanta Botanical Garden, United Way, Year up Atlanta, the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta and many others. His acumen married to deep, caring character and insight also helped him engineer multiple corporate turnaround­s.

Michael Zola Kay, 83, passed away Jan. 19 from complicati­ons from a fall. He is survived by wife Ann Kay; sons Johnathan Kay (Marcia) and Todd Lubin (Lindsay); daughters Jennifer Gilbert and Alison Doerfler; eight grandchild­ren; and his brother Jeffrey Kay.

A degree from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administra­tion led to a robust career in hospitalit­y management, which brought him to Atlanta in 1980 as CEO with the Omni Hotel chain. That was after he helped engineer a turnaround for Americana Hotels.

In 1991, he also helped reverse the fortunes of airline catering company LSG Sky Chefs, perhaps his crown jewel in turnaround­s. In the book “Straight from the CEO,” he recounted boosting profitabil­ity, slashing operating costs and helping improve travelers’ impression­s of the service by empowering managers and introducin­g new values.

Longtime friend Mike Leven, who worked helping Kay turn around Americana Hotels, says Kay worked management magic by employing a process known as “constructi­ve change.”

“It was developed from an Eastern way of doing things instead of Western,” said Leven. “It was working backward from the end result, planning from the end result instead of looking at where you are and working from there,” he said.

He used a similar tactic in forays into the nonprofit sector, said Gary Miller, the former head of Jewish Family and Career Services.

“He would say, ‘If you closed your eyes and dreamed a little and imagined five years out from now, what would success look like? How would you know it? And how would it make you feel?’” recalled Miller.

The approach paid off, as Kay and Ann co-chaired a Jewish Family and Career Services capital campaign that resulted in an expanded headquarte­rs and more space for the employment program. His efforts at Hands on Atlanta led to new digs for that group as well.

“He was a pro at listening to people,” recalled Ann. “He had a very big heart, and causes were very important to him, giving back to the community and to those less fortunate.” That stemmed from parental teaching, she thinks.

Kay was also instrument­al in crafting a strategic plan for the Atlanta Jewish community, said Eric Robbins, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

So important was his work that he was graced with the group’s lifetime achievemen­t award in 2021, Robbins added.

Whether aiding Jewish causes or the city at large with stints on boards, Kay was a full-on philanthro­pist, said Alison Doerfler. “Some people write checks. Some people volunteer here and there. He embodied all of that: time, talent and treasure.”

Family members and friends say Kay lived a deeply rich life bounded by strong moral guardrails.

“In the middle of a meeting, he would always be the one to ask, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’” Robbins said.

 ?? ?? Michael Kay was a businessma­n and supporter of many nonprofits.
Michael Kay was a businessma­n and supporter of many nonprofits.

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